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The Big, Bad Ass BLACK PANTHER Is A Beaut

Opening tonight at a multiplex near everybody:

BLACK PANTHER (Dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018)

Let me get this straight – after 17 films dominated by white folks, particularly white men, we finally get a Marvel movie headed by a black superhero, with a nearly all black cast, written, directed, and shot by black artists, and released during black history month?

Well, it may have taken them until they got halfway through Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which launched with IRON MAN back in 2008, but here it is, the big, bad ass BLACK PANTHER, and it’s a beaut.

Chadwick Boseman, who’s previously played iconic baseball player Jackie Robinson, iconic soul singer James Brown, and iconic Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, takes on the iconic role of the first black superhero of mainstream American comics, whose real name is T’Challa, known to the world as the ruler of the isolationist African country Wakanda.


When he’s not attending to his country’s policies, T’Challa becomes the Black Panther, outfitted in a sleek skin-tight suit made out of Vibranium (a fictional metal that’s featured in several Marvel movies), and a fearsome feline mask, so he can more effectively fight the forces of evil.


Embedded in Wakanda is a secret technologically advanced civilization which T’Challa becomes the king of after fighting off the challenge for the throne by rival tribe leader M’Baku (Winton Duke).

T’Challa’s supporting crew includes his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his wise-cracking sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his best friend W’Kabi (GET OUT’s Daniel Kaluuya), his ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita N’yongo), and his bodyguards Ayo (Florence Kasumba), and Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira).

Threat to the order of Wakanda comes in the form of Michael B. Jordan as N’Jadaka/ Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, who seeks revenge for the murder of his father N’Jobu (This is Us’s Sterling K. Brown).

This second challenge for the throne is where the franchise formula becomes the most transparent in BLACK PANTHER as we know that T’Challa will lose this fight, because that’s the arc of just about every superhero movie. First act, our protagonist is triumphant, in the second they are either stripped of their powers or seemingly killed, and in the third they return to reclaim their glory.

These acts, or challenges, are filled out by zippy setpieces including a nighttime car chase through the streets of Seoul, South Korea; and an air combat sequence involving one of the film’s token white characters, CIA Operative Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) piloting a remote jet.

The rest of the kinetically colorful adventure concerns a lot of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat captured in eye-poppingly sweeping shots by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who shot Coogler’s 2013 debut FRUITVALE STATION, and was recently nominated for an Oscar for her work on Dee Rees MUDBOUND. There’s also the eye candy of Ruth E. Carter’s elaborate costuming, and Hannah Beachler’s shiny production design.

Written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, the production soars on just about every level. Boseman brings gravitas, and a sense of personal power to his performance, and is well matched to Jordan’s scenery chewing villain. Jordan is also again a good match with writer/director Coogler, having worked with him on both of his superb previous films, FRUITVALE STATION, and CREED.

Of the other cast members, it’s the women who often steal the show, whether it’s Wright with her well-timed one-liners, Gurira with her unblinking icy delivery which will make you forget Michonne, or Nyong’o, whose Wakandan warrior spy character is refreshingly more than just the requisite love interest for our hero.

The enormously positive buzz for BLACK PANTHER has some critics calling it the best Marvel movie ever, but I wouldn’t go that far (not sure which one I’d pick though – I’ll get back to you on that). I’m just going to consider it another vastly entertaining winner for the brand, which, I’ve got to admit, has been impressively consistent in quality for an 18 and counting film franchise.

Of course, along with all the expected Marvel marks being hit – call backs to previous movies, comic cameos by Stan Lee, etc. – there are mid and post credits scenes, so be sure to stay until the very end.


More later…

Branagh’s Misguided MURDER & More THOR

And now, catching up with a couple of movies currently playing at every multiplex:

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

(Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2017)


Kenneth Branagh takes on the directing duties, and the starring role of Detective Hercule Poirot in this fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 bestselling novel, which never leaves the shadow of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version.

In that first adaptation, Albert Finney is initially unrecognizable as Poirot with his slicked-back black hair, outrageous mustache, and stodgy demeanor, but the blond Branagh just looks like himself, only with similarly exaggerated facial hair. His accent, an attempt at a thick Belgian brogue, even disappears a number of times.

Branagh’s Poirot fronts a cast comprised of A-listers Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench, alongside lesser known names such as Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Tom Bateman.

Yeah, it’s a big ensemble, so, as can be guessed, most of these players gets a limited amount of screen-time so if you’re a Depp fan, be warned that his role is a glorified cameo at best.

Especially since Depp, as rich businessman Samuel Ratchett, is the murder victim so he’s a corpse throughout the bulk of the picture. As the well worn mystery trope goes, the rest of the cast all have dark connections to Rachett, which means tons of motives, and Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one for his investigation.

This all takes place while the train has been stranded on its route by an avalanche and they have to wait for help to arrive. Unlike MURDER ’74, Branagh takes the passengers off of the train for a lot of the second half, and even stages the big reveal in the exterior of the tunnel the train has been stalled in front of.

This movie is full of such visual choices – the camera swoops over snowy mountaintops, cranes from the bottom to the top of the frame while its subjects stay in the middle of the show, and, most annoyingly, films two entire scenes from directly overhead. As gorgeous as much of the scenery shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos is, these show-off moves distract from the story and make what could’ve been a tense gritty remake into something that looks like a glossy magazine spread.

But the most frustrating thing about Branagh’s take on the 83-year old story is how he botches the conclusion so that it has precious little impact. The construction of the big reveal is as rickety as the CGI bridge the train is trapped on. Branagh, working from a screenplay by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN), has fashioned a self indulgent, yet pretty looking muddle out of Christie’s most famous whodunit.

It just doesn’t hold a candle to what Lumet did with this material in ’74. Consider the superiority of that film’s all-star cast – Finney’s Poirot is joined by Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, John Gielgud, and Jacqueline Bisset (if you younger readers don’t know these names – spend some time with movies made before STAR WARS) – the infinitely sharper script by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Dehn, and its suitably claustrophobic interiors which are free of any visual trickery.

So obviously, my recommendation is to skip Branagh’s misguided MURDER ‘17, and seek out Lumet’s much classier ’74 version. I bet it’ll make for a more satisfying experience, and you will be spared about how this new one so cynically sets up a sequel – Poirot gets a message at the end from Egypt about being needed to investigate a death on the Nile (get it?).


THOR: RAGNARAK
(Dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)

We’re now halfway through Phrase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise, so here’s the third installment of the THOR adventures, currently # 1 at the box office, which I enjoyed a lot more than the first two (the first one was directed by Branagh incidentally).

As I’ve written before, Thor is my least favorite of the Marvel movie characters, but this time around the guy, again played with gusto by Chris Hemsworth, has grown on me, and with Taika Waititi (who directed the hilarious 2014 vampire mockumentary WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and year’s winning comedy adventure HUNT OF THE WILDERBEAST) at the helm, the Norse God heads a smashingly funny film. One that stands beside ANT-MAN, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY entries, and DEADPOOL in the realm of Marvel movies that are really comedies at their core.

The plot, which has something to do with Thor trying to save his home city of Asgard from being destroyed by his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) with help of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), really doesn’t matter as the narrative zips through one action set piece to another racking up a lot of big laughs in the process.

Tony Stark is brought up enough times (Ruffalo even wears his clothes) that I was expecting Robert Downey Jr. to pop up, but instead we’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange to do that duty. But the cast member that appears to be having the most fun here is Jeff Goldblum as the unctuous Grandmaster of a planet on which Thor winds up getting pitted against the Hulk in an arena gladiator fight.

It’s a fun yet disposable entertainment as I laughed quite a bit, but now can’t think of any notable quotes – oh, wait, there was Thor saying “A creepy old man cut my hair off!” which totally sums up the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.

THOR: RAGNAROK may be an overly formulaic (Thormulaic?), and maybe not a really essential entry in the Marvel canon, but it’s sprinkled with so many gags that land that it really doesn’t matter.


More later…